For Philly hip-hop / funk / art collective ILL DOOTS, their sound doesn’t just rely on vocals, instruments, production and the other qualities that come along with making music. Ingrained within their sound is their philosophy “I love living, I love learning,” which carries out through their energetic performances, gratifying optimism and arguably what seems most important to them, community engagement.

ILL DOOTS’ mission was captured in their upcoming documentary 20|20_REVISION, which has been screened at numerous film festivals and events, including its premiere at the 2020 Baltimore International Black Film Festival and selection as a nominee in the annual Chicago Indie Film Awards and Paris International Short Festival of 2021. Its next screening happens Monday, February 22nd, via the Fade to Black Virtual Film Showcase.

The Key spoke to the film’s director and producer Christian Sarkis Graham, who has previously worked on projects like the music video for “DRO,” about the project’s creation and his experience alongside ILL DOOTS on their tours from 2014 through 2018.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Key: How did you balance portraying ILL DOOTS as a whole/collective as well as their individual personalities? And as an extension of that, it’s interesting to see things like ILL DOOTS performing at a live venue to being in a small room teaching kids about music. Did you have a specific aim for how you wanted to portray ILL DOOTS?

Christian Sarkis Graham: I actually think that, on its face, the contrast between those concerts and classrooms can feel starker than it really is, in a way. I think it’s a juxtaposition that cuts straight to the core of what this group is about, in every step of their work. A trait of theirs that has stood out most to me over the years has been their commitment to vitally engaging the people around them. I think you see it in the defibrillating interactive shows they orchestrate as much as you do in these free arts workshops they organize. I guess in short, I wanted to present their “I Love Living” and “I Love Learning” rallying cries as different verses of the same song.

In step with this spirit of collective involvement, how we made this project was heavily crowd-sourced. The idea when we started this was to recruit camera operators from the audiences of the various stops in the 2014 I Love Living Tour, (which we did with the help of BoatHouse Pictures). Since then, we’d amassed a small archive of disparately sourced footage from different chapters of the band’s history. So, the end product was the result of a lot of separate viewpoints and voices, assembling to bear witness to a common story.

ILL DOOTS | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN |
ILL DOOTS | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN |

Outside of a couple of interviews that I’d done with members of the band over the years, what you see and hear is largely the result of whatever was captured in real-time by a given camera operator in a given moment. And because of that, I thought of this movie as less about carefully defining the individual personalities of each bandmember, as much as about showcasing the common cause to which they’d each mutually committed, as a whole. The story, I thought, was found in the shared work of ILL DOOTS – as captured by the shared work of the “#ILLMovement” they’d built around themselves.

TK: In the film, there are numerous occasions where ILL DOOTS stresses the importance of change, saying several times “this is not where we are going to be in a year.” Could you describe what it was like to witness the group over a four-year period?

CSG: Yeah, that’s really the heart of this story, down even to the documentary’s name. This repeated refrain of constant personal revision, and the clarity of sight, mind and purpose that it affords. Back when I first started following ILL DOOTS, just as a fan, they had a song in their heavy rotation called “3EATKRACK,” which was a term they’d coined for the process of ongoing transformation – viewing life as a transition from the raw to the refined, usually exemplified by the material that existed somewhere between a lump of coal and a precious diamond. It was an idea that the band had always championed in concept, but that we would come to see lived out on screen, in their own experiences, in the years to come. 

Since 2014, I’ve watched people shift in and out of the group. I’ve seen departures that were sometimes amicable, sometimes kind of traumatic – but all of them necessary in leading to the iteration of the band that continues to carry out the same core mission with more proficiency, determination and focus than ever before.

TK: The documentary will be screened at numerous events, including the Baltimore International Black Film Festival, the Chicago Indie Film Awards, and the Fade to Black Virtual Film Showcase. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

CSG: I’d want people to feel emboldened to confront the factors of the world that they can recognize as wrong – to understand that doing this is something entirely within their own power, as individuals.

One of my favorite pieces that’s spoken in this movie happens during one of the I Love Learning arts workshop scenes: “Plenty of people are like ‘Oh wow, I hope they’ll be okay. Oh the kids! Sucks for them!’ …Okay, do something.” 

We see ILL DOOTS starting these workshops, as guys with no formal teaching certificates or standardized lesson plans, but in place of that, a wealth of music experience, and a desire to encourage and empower kids who’d never had access to those experiences themselves.  They were simply using the tools they had to serve the need that they could. Which is all anyone can do. 

I think there’s been a growing trend of performed progressivism in our culture over the past few years, which can feel pretty cynical. It can take the form of people dropping by a BLM protest for five minutes to post an Instagram story, or mood board a commercial to sell soda. But it can also take much subtler, gentler forms, too. Like a by-all-accounts a sincerely intentioned, liberally-minded person who is vocally critical of society’s injustices, but is daunted by the task of figuring out what they’re actually supposed to do about it. It can be tempting, in the face of this uncertainty, to just keep our heads down – to hope that things just sort themselves out and that it’s enough to lip-serve the problems of the world when realistically we feel powerless to counter. But that’s a lousy excuse to not try to use the resources at our disposal to extend support to anyone whom our society is openly failing. 

Your methods may not, and likely will not, be perfect right away. There will be awkward missteps and growing pains, like with any newly found practice. All that means, of course, is at that point, it’s time for a revision.

The next available screening for “20|20_REVISION” will take place on February 22 as part of the Fade to Black Virtual Film Showcase, a celebration of Philadelphia Black voices, art & narratives, presented by OMG! Studios. The event is “pay what you wish” with proceeds benefiting the participating artists and filmmakers. Sign up here.